Highland Scots

Written By Lloyd Johnson

When the Highland Scots migrated to America, North Carolina was a more popular place to settle than any of the other colonies.

In 1739, Gabriel Johnston, royal governor of North Carolina and native Scotsman, encouraged 360 Highland Scots to settle in North Carolina and later provided them a ten-year tax exemption for doing so.  Subsequent offers by Johnston attracted Highland Scots to North Carolina primarily for economic and political reasons. In Scotland, they had difficulties paying the increasing land rents and had experienced defeat against the English at the Battle of Culloden in 1745.  Also, the Highland evictions (also called clearances), began in the 1700s and continued in the 1800s. These dictates forced many Scots to give up their land so that sheep could be raised. Many chose therefore to settle mainly in North Carolina; others sailed to New York, New Jersey, Georgia, and Canada. In the late nineteenth century, officials promoted working with North Carolina timber among the Highland Scots; but few enjoyed the work, so only a small number came to do so.

Although their exact numbers are unknown, records reveal that countless Highland Scots migrated to North Carolina during the colonial period.  Arriving in Wilmington, most who came had obtained a land grant from the government to settle in the Upper Cape Fear region, because they knew many parts of the Lower Cape Fear had been settled.  In 1754, enterprising merchants from Wilmington had settled Cross Creek (today’s Fayetteville), an interior town on the Cape Fear River, so many Highlanders dwelled near the small creeks flowing into the river. Highland settlements were numerous in this region during the eighteenth century, and evidence of them can be seen today in Anson, Bladen, Moore, Cumberland, Richland, Scotland, and Robeson counties.

The early Scots raised livestock, including sheep and swine, and grew wheat and corn while some worked in the naval stores industry. Although many preferred to live outside of Cross Creek, they actively traded in the town. The Lowland Scots who migrated from Scotland to North Carolina in the eighteenth century primarily settled in the Lower Cape Fear region, around Wilmington. The 1790 US census lists 150 inhabitants of the Upper Cape Fear Valley who named Scotland as their birthplace. Unlike Highlanders in other colonies, those in North Carolina intermarried with Lowland Scots. Also, during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries Highland families in North Carolina exchanged letters with family members in Scotland. Estate records probated in the eighteenth century also reveal that there were a few Highland Scots who owned land in both North Carolina and Scotland.

Some important eighteenth-century Highland Scots in North Carolina were Flora MacDonald, John McRae, and James Campbell. While in Scotland in 1745, Flora MacDonald helped save the life of Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Stuart who claimed to be heir to the thrones of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Later, from 1774 to 1778, she resided with her husband, Alan, in the Barbecue community of Harnett County.

In 1754, James Campbell arrived in Cumberland County and established three Presbyterian churches: Longstreet, located on the present-day Fort Bragg (now Fort Liberty) Army base; Old Bluff, near modern-day Wade; and Barbecue in western Harnett County. Hugh McRae, a Gaelic poet resided near Carthage until the American Revolution. 

At the outbreak of the war, more than a few Highland Scots in the Upper Cape Fear were Loyalists, including Hugh McRae and Flora McDonald. Yet after their defeat at the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge in February 1776, Loyalist support waned—as evidenced by the nearly four hundred who took an oath of allegiance issued by Cumberland County in 1778. As mentioned, not all Highland Scots remained in North Carolina. After the Revolution, some left for Barbados, Nova Scotia, or Great Britain, many because they had lost their property by either being confiscated by the local government.

In the eighteenth century, Highland Scots spoke Gaelic in church and at home. Presbyterian ministers conducted services in Gaelic and English, and young children recited hymns and religious songs in Gaelic.  In the early nineteenth-century Fayetteville, a Gaelic press published books that a nearby bookstore sold. Gaelic speaking in North Carolina declined after the Civil War and virtually disappeared as a spoken language by the mid-twentieth century. Scottish surnames, however, remained prevalent; some are Bain, Black, Campbell, Clark, Darrach, Gilchrist, MacDonald, McDougald, McKay, McLean, McLeod, McNeill, McPhearson, McAllister, Morrison, Patterson, Ross, and Stewart.

In North Carolina, Scottish heritage is still practiced and celebrated. In the 1950s, a resurgence of the state’s Scottish culture began when Donald MacDonald and Hugh Morton started the Highland Games at Grandfather Mountain. Today, over thirty-five thousand people attend the Highland Games every July.  Other Scottish celebrations include the Loch Norman games near Charlotte and the Highland Games at Red Springs. 

Today, over 35,000 people attend the Highland Games at Grandfather Mountain. Image courtesy of the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games.